Richard Berlin III
Dining model conversions are never easy. We asked Sewanee’s Director of Dining Rich Berlin to describe how the school approached its transition as it migrated from the contracted to the self-operated model in 2012..
From May to July (Sewanee's transiton period) is a short window. What did you do first?
People issues always come first. From the start there were questions—employees were concerned about their jobs, livelihoods, what change would mean. Many had been here for years working for whichever company held the contract.
Frank [Gladu] had already held group meetings to describe the university’s objectives with the change and to build confidence, and I was immediately involved in those efforts. The staff remained pretty concerned until mid May when the school extended formal job offers to them.
How was that done?
Many specifics, like the shift or hours they would work, were still unknown. But all existing employees were told they’d be offered jobs and would make no less than their current pay as long as they met HR’s standard employee screening policies.
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We made it clear offers were dependent on their remaining on board with the contract company through the transition period. We needed their commitment to pull together and help manage the transition.
Did the jobs change?
In many cases, yes. In mid- March the school held a Job Fair, and only those currently working for the management company were eligible for it. Seventy percent applied and that is what set the employee transfer process in motion.
The university provided a $1.00/hr rate increase for all retained hourly employees and recognized their years of service to Sewanee even though they technically had been employed by the contractor. These were important factors in making staff feel part of the Sewanee family.
Over the next 60 days we structured the job offers, making a number of title changes to signal the culture change we wanted. For example, to ensure paths for culinary development, we created three tiers of cook positions and designated several lead levels. We also established a new Dining Staff Council with representatives nominated and selected by hourly staff to give them a voice. We also changed the reporting hierarchy and looked to match up people and their skill sets with the new classifications.
The point was, this would not be a matter of ‘business as usual under new management.’
We wanted staff to see the changes as offering something new and positive. It is one thing to invest in change and tell employees they are doing a good job. It is another to have positive reinforcement of change from patrons and others within your own community. That has helped propel change forward.
What about existing management?
We wanted management and staff who were dedicated to Sewanee and to supporting the community here. We retained professional staff enthusiastic about the change, like our executive chef and catering director, and brought in a key new talent, Associate Director Wyatte Stuard. Wyatte was instrumental in establishing a strong purchasing program and training programs for sanitation and safety right out of the gate.
You take many things for granted until they won’t be there tomorrow! We had to select and establish a new POS system, develop a ground up budget and P&L geared to self operation, with lines reflecting the way we intended to manage the enterprise. When you don’t inherit a P&L crafted over the years, you have to determine how you’ll track expenses, how each line will be populated. You have to decide how to handle capabilities a contractor may have provided via corporate resources: HR, marketing, culinary development, for example.
And in operations?
We wanted customers and staff to break existing patterns of behavior, to re-imagine the operation and how they related to it.
For example, we concurrently changed several stations, including swapping the grill and vegetarian locations. At the former grill we created a dedicated vegan option with menus changing daily. This new menu was immensely successful—many meat eaters now go there just for sides.
What advice would you give another director in this position?
I was fortunate —I had time to observe the contract operation, the working dynamics between management and staff. I focused on the how oversight was done, how people responded, where expertise was among hourly staff and management. That insight was immensely helpful as we restructured. Learn where former managers perceived obstacles to their success and work to remove these as part of the transition. That’s a tremendous motivational opportunity.